"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Cuba, The Inner City, And McMansions–An Elitist Approach To Development

I saw a Facebook post recently which expressed the hope that post-Castro Cuba would remain the same non-plastic, friendly and welcoming place that it is now.  The writer feared that Havana’s Malecón would become a beachfront for the rich and famous, and that the city’s shabby charm would be replaced by condos and glitz, frivolous wealth, and crass Americanism.   In other words, she wanted Havana to remain a perpetual museum for sophisticated visitors – a place of understatement and respect for place, community, and tradition. The crumbling facades of decaying buildings, the old cars of the 50s, colorful wash hanging on the line, would always be reminiscent of the old neighborhoods of Naples or even of Rome where Italians still live in crumbling but elegant Renaissance villas.

The charm hides the poverty, of course.  There is no respect among Cubans for their old, decrepit, airless buildings; no love lost for their poorly-stocked ‘lively, ethnic’ open-air markets; no nostalgia for their rebuilt, dinged, banged up DeSotos. There is no poverty in Cuba because everyone is poor. Poverty is egalitarian in Castro’s Cuba.

Once the Castro Brothers leave the scene, Cubans will soon have everything their Miami cousins have – arctic air-conditioning, flashy cars, flat-screen TVs, smartphones, malls, Saks and Kenzo, luxury lofts, second homes, and tonsured golf courses.  They can’t wait to escape the penury and marginalized existence of a faded revolution.  They are tired of being  Kim Jong-Il’s only friend.  They take no pride in having the socialist leaders of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador calling Cuba their spiritual home.  They want gleaming white kitchens, patios, decorator furniture, and the good life.

I travelled frequently to Eastern Europe right after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the scene was very much like Cuba.  In Bucharest the few neighborhoods that had not been razed by Ceausescu for his megalomaniacal palaces and government complexes were shabby, rundown, and crumbling.  At the same time, they definitely had the same Old World charm so admired by visitors to Havana.  Waving his arm to indicate the faded elegance of a once-aristocratic enclave of the city, I heard an American visitor say, “I hope democracy doesn’t destroy all this”.

The same elitist mantra is repeated over and over again in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. “Preserve the simplicity, revere the traditional, and celebrate diversity” is another way of saying “Poverty is charming”.  Nostalgia is a privilege of the rich.

One thing is certain.  Cuba will go the way of Communist China and Vietnam.  There will be an explosion of long-frustrated individual enterprise, an outburst of capitalism and market vigor.  The old Malecón-style Shanghai harbor has been replaced by this:

Havana’s Malecón will be no different – less grandiose perhaps, befitting a small island, but impressive nonetheless.

Capitalism is a juggernaut.  It has never been thwarted or even slowed.  The Soviets tried and bankrupted and ruined Russia and all its satellites,  Communism was a dismal failure, borne out of an admirable principle of equality and justice, but raised in an environment of fear and intimidation.

Capitalism works because human beings are hardwired for survival – and the extension of territory, the acquisition of wealth, and the demonstration of power are expressions of this protective self-interest.  Poor people will always want to be rich, or at least to rise out of poverty with the hope of wealth and well-being.

This really gets under the skin of progressives.  They see the materialistic grabbing instinct of the poor and wonder why their ascent from the bottom quartile can’t be a little more tasteful. Why so many blighted commercial strips?  Why so many tacky McDonalds, Burger Kings, Pizza Huts, and Taco Bells? So many cheap, plastic dresses?  At least poor neighborhoods have an authenticity, progressives say.

In Washington, DC, most slum neighborhoods do indeed have authenticity.  The old stone and brick Victorian and turn-of-the-century buildings are classic – solid, impressive, and with architectural and sculptural features no longer found in modern buildings. At the same time, they are wrecks – abandoned, disrespected, and befouled. Once these ghetto neighborhoods have been gentrified and returned to their original tree-lined, elegant condition, they will be the museum pieces desired by the traditional and upwardly-mobile alike.

Logan Circle, Washington DC

Progressives lament the gentrification of urban neighborhoods because poor people are displaced; but they and their children move in once the housing stock has been fixed up, street lighting replaced, and crime reduced.  Bloomingdale (DC), once the worst of slums in the city, is a place anyone would want to live. Classic, restored buildings, a diverse population, coffee shops, San Francisco-style restaurants, and a growing family ambience.

In other words, as long as cities, whether Washington or Havana eliminate their poverty properly and with taste, then gentrification is acceptable.  The problem is when old, poor neighborhoods are taken over by crass corporate interests – inner cities destroyed by Walmart and Target, suburbs blighted by strip malls and cookie-cutter pre-fabs.

For wealthy, intellectual elites, there is a right way and a wrong way of residential development.  Either you encourage big boxes, finally offering poor residents decent, low-cost food and products and drive out the Mom and Pops that give neighborhoods ‘character and authenticity’; or you wait until market demand moves people out, leaving the housing stock to wealthy newcomers.  The latter is always the elite option.

Urban development has a certain cachet for progressive elites.  Not only will living conditions be improved for the poor through neighborhood rehabilitation, affordable housing, and improved infrastructure; but the city itself will benefit through a preservation of tradition, diversity, and authenticity. No one wants to buy a little property in the Low Country, set up a double-wide, shop at the Piggly Wiggly, and drink cheap beer.  There is redeemable poverty, and then there is trailer poverty.

In addition to this rich-on-poor urban development, there is a rich-on-rich variety – historic preservation. Residents of old, wealthy enclaves, whether Nantucket, Santa Barbara, or Grosse Pointe, will fight to preserve the integrity of their neighborhoods and to resist the influx of golf courses, condos, and commercial enterprise.  Acrimonious battles have broken out between builders and residents of settled communities during public planning commission meetings.  Builders see great opportunity and profit in mega-houses; and wealthy clients are lining up to buy them.  Older residents see these houses as the worst kind of crass materialism and a destruction of the very quality and ethos of what has been a traditional, conservative community of old wealth.

The builders are well within their rights, and so are the residents.  The town is in a bind because it salivates over the tax revenues generated from these super-properties, but needs to respect the views of its influential older residents.

Potomac, MD is the butt of snotty jokes in the Washington area. McMansions were born there, and have, in the mind of many, totally destroyed the old, traditional, colonial character of the community. Yet market demands are such that the builders and their ambitious clients have won out.

The point is only that elites all have a clear, absolute, and completely subjective definition of quality; and this is no more evident than in the issues of upgrading poor areas or the preservation of wealthy ones. Progressive elites especially are suspicious of market forces because the market has no cultural foundation and no ethical compass. Supply and demand is not value-driven.  Although they may claim adherence to cultural relativity and diversity, they believe no such thing.  There is indeed a right way and a wrong way to live.

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